Because literacy arrived only with conversion to Christianity from the fifth century c.e. onward, there is no contemporary native record for pre-Christian Ireland, while its remote location on the western edge of Europe meant that it attracted little attention from Classical commentators. The archaeological record attests to ritual practice, but not to religious belief; a limited insight in this connection may be obtained from historical sources (including certain early ecclesiastical texts in the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis, some Middle Irish antiquarian tracts, and occasional stray references in later medieval accounts), from hagiography, and from Old and Middle Irish literature. The extent to which such evidence reflects practices or beliefs comparable to those of the Continental Celts is open to debate; scholars have noted the limited quantity and range of archaeological data and its qualified resemblance to the style of La Tene, a site in Switzerland the material heritage of which is widely viewed as the definitive characteristic of Iron Age Celtic culture. Concerns have also been expressed about the lateness of literary references to pagan custom, and about acceptance of the apparently La Tene type settings of Old Irish stories (especially the Ulster Cycle), from the eighth century c.e. onwards, as representing a "window on the Iron Age." McCone, in particular, stresses the ecclesiastical environment in which Old Irish literature was produced, and the Christian and Classical influences affecting it, while not denying the possible survival of some influence from oral tradition with pagan roots. Some have argued for a recasting, in this ecclesiastical environment, of earlier sources to present a more supernatural view of the poet’s profession. In Carey’s view, the late ninth-century glossary of Cormac mac Cuilennain represents an important step in reconstructing a "pagan heritage" for Ireland.

Ritual Sites

Two prominent earthwork sites, which apparently served ritual functions, bear traces of fire-ceremonies— while at another site there are indications that horses were perhaps ceremonially killed. At Emain Macha ("Navan Fort"), near Armagh, excavated by Waterman in the 1960s-70s, one phase of later Iron-Age activity (with dendrochronological date of 95 b.c.e.) involved the construction of what looks to be a shrine comprised of concentric circles of wooden posts. There is evidence of intense burning, seemingly deliberate. Parallels have been drawn with the Dun Ailinne earthwork, County Kildare (radiocarbon dates ranging from 390 b.c.e. to 320 c.e.), where Wailes found a circle of wooden posts inside an enclosure—also destroyed by fire. Cosmolog-ical interpretations of these structures focus on an apparent resemblance to the sky wheel (a symbol elsewhere associated with the Celtic deity Taranis, who had solar connotations) and see particular significance in the destruction of these sites by fire. At Tara, the discovery by Roche of animal remains—especially horse—suggests ritual activity and prompts comparisons with Danesbury in England, and perhaps with Belgic or north-Gaulish sites like Gournay or Ribemont. The find is especially curious in view of a colorful account in the twelfth-century topography of Giraldus Cambrensis, which purportedly describes a regnal inauguration, whereby the new king engaged in ritual mating with a white horse before it was slaughtered and eaten.


The separation of embankment from interior by a fosse at such sites, possibly intended to distance observers from proceedings within the enclosure, has led some archeologists to infer the existence of a priestly class. Historical evidence from the Early Christian period in the form of ecclesiastical legislation (particularly the so-called "First Synod of St. Patrick," which may reflect a sixth-century c.e. reality) refers to seers before whom pagans swore solemn oaths. Hagiographical works from the seventh century onward—including the Latin Lives of St. Brigit—commonly refer to druids; such references, and the term driu in Old Irish, may mean that this priesthood (described in a Gaulish context by Caesar and by earlier commentators) historically did exist in Ireland. The late medieval description by Giraldus Cambrensis of nine women who guarded an eternal flame at Kildare has been viewed as testimony to a priestly role for females in connection with a fire-cult—and comparisons drawn with a flame at Bath and with Classical accounts of all-female sanctuaries in Gaul. Several episodes in the Life of Brigit, including the description of her veiling, when a column of fire was seen to rise from her head—otherwise open to interpretation as Christian symbolism—have been cited as possible reflections of a fire-priestess role. However, recent opinion, as represented by Harrington, is more skeptical.


The archaeological record includes several discoveries of La Tene artifacts, hoards, and single finds, which seemingly represent ritual deposits. In the late nineteenth century, a collection of swords, scabbard plates, and spear fitments of La Tene style was discovered at Lisnacrogher, County Antrim. Although now a bog, the site was probably, as Raftery suggests, a votive lake in which valuables were deposited—like Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales or, indeed, La Tene itself. At another almost-dry lake, Loughnashade (Loch na Sead; "Lake of the Valuables"), near Emain Macha, workers in the eighteenth century found four elaborate bronze ceremonial horns featuring late La Tene ornament. Isolated finds of weapons and ornamental objects have been made in rivers, especially in the Bann and Shannon, a trend that is paralleled in Britain and on the Continent. Water cults are certainly well attested among the Celts. Disposal of valuable items in sacred places presumably represents vicarious sacrifice—although there are indications that animals, and sometimes humans, were ritually deposited.

Loughnashade also produced animal remains and several human skulls. In the 1970s, Lynn’s excavation at "The King’s Stables" (Co. Armagh)—the site of an artificial pond, now dry—yielded an impressive collection of animal bones including cattle, deer, dog, pig, and sheep. This was plainly not an occupation site, and it seemed unlikely that these were food remains. The case for ritual deposit here was greatly strengthened by the discovery of the facial portion of a human skull. Similarly, an enclosure at Raffin, County Meath, produced a skull burial. These finds clearly point to the ritual deposit of bodily remains, and prompt questions in relation to human sacrifice. The nineteenth-century unearthing at Gallagh, County Galway, of the body of a young man preserved in a bog provides a rather compelling case for ritual killing. The finders’ accounts are emphatic about a rope or ligature around the individual’s neck, and he was evidently immersed in water. Mistreatment of the remains at the time of discovery and afterwards render it difficult to now ascertain whether or not the body, when found, also bore evidence of wounding. The closest parallels are provided by bog bodies of the first century b.c.e. from Lindow Moss, in England, and from Tollund and other locations in Denmark, which lie beyond what is generally construed as the "Celtic Zone." In these instances the individuals concerned, also young men, were wounded (the first struck on the head with a stone, the other stabbed in the throat), hanged, or gar-roted, and immersed in water. Finds of this order are significant in the light of the widely discussed "threefold death" motif, found in Old Irish and Welsh literature. Tales such as that of Aed Dub, king of Ulaid, or Diarmait mac Cerbaill, king of Tara (composed, as Borsje points out, in an explicitly Christian context), concern an anti-hero who inescapably perishes amidst prophesies of doom. The individual in question is generally stabbed, and falls from wood (possibly an image for hanging) into water, or is burned and then "drowned."

Burials and Afterlife

Ireland’s record of general Iron Age burials is limited, in terms of quantity and quality. Of the small number of examples found to date, there is nothing comparable to the impressive earthen barrows associated with the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures of the Continent, characterized by the presence of a "wagon" or "chariot" and featuring a range of grave-goods, including weaponry, ornaments, and abundant indicators of a funerary feast. Often taking the form of modest "ring-barrows," which suggest continuity with the Bronze Age, Irish burials display a mixture of cremation and inhumation rites, with paltry grave-goods and no clear evidence of food or drink to send off the deceased. Typical of the ring-barrows so far excavated is Grannagh, County Galway, which produced just a bronze fibula brooch, some bone pins, and glass beads; only in one grave at Tara were animal bones found accompanying a burial, and it is uncertain whether or not they are primary. Nonetheless, even such sparse grave-goods still indicate belief in an afterlife. Old Irish literature features tales of Donn, viewed by some as a counterpart to the Continental deity Dis Pater, who ruled over a realm of the dead. Donn appears as an isolated figure who has little association with other gods; moreover, it is clear that he was host only to the "glorious dead"—the warrior elite. Ordinary folk are accorded little attention in Early Irish literature, whether in relation to this life or the next.


Archaeology tells us little regarding the deities worshiped in pre-Christian Ireland. The absence of inscriptions, prior to the introduction of ogham in an Early Christian context, makes it difficult to identify figural representations—even if they could be confidently dated, which is another issue. Stone sculptures found, which arguably belong to the Iron Age, include a head from Corleck (Co. Cavan), and the "Tanderagee idol," reportedly from Armagh. The tricephalic character of the Corleck head, paralleled on the Continent, has led some to view this as a representation of the god Lug— with whom this characteristic is associated. The way in which the Tanderagee figure holds its right arm has prompted identification with the deity Nuadu (or Nodens); the latter features in the Irish Mythological Cycle in company with In Dagda—the "good god"— as one of the Tuatha De Danann, or divine people. As king, Nuadu loses his arm and, although given a silver replacement, ultimately abdicates in favor of Lug.

Various placenames seem to commemorate these deities; for instance, Lugmad (Lugmoth? = Lug’s penis (?) = Louth), or Magh Nuadat (Nuadu’s Plain = Maynooth). There is record of the population-group Luigne— "descendants of Lug"—whose name is left on the Barony of Leyney, County Sligo. Problems arise, however, concerning the identity of the eponyms in question and the probable date at which the placenames were coined.

In addition to deities accorded prominent roles in mythological tales, others, it has been argued, are reflected in hagiography. Debate concerning apparent solar symbolism in the lives of Brigit notwithstanding, a goddess of that name was known to the Continental Celts and is discussed in Cormac’s glossary. The story of bishop of Emly and his rearing by wolves, nowadays interpreted as a borrowing from heroic literature, was formerly viewed as a reflection of older traditions—associating the saint with a sacred animal. There are representations in the archaeological record of what may be divine animals or animal deities; these include stone bear figures from Armagh—if Iron Age in date—and a recently discovered janiform figure with "human" and "animal" (wolf?) sides. There are further hints regarding cults of inanimate nature; the notion of the bile, or sacred tree, persisted well into the historical period—while some claim that magical properties assigned to certain "holy wells" in modern times point to pagan origins.


Feast-days known from the Continental Celtic calendar, including Imbolc (February 1), Beltene (May 1), Lugnasa (August 1), and Samain (November 1)—all representing turning-points of the year, are noted in Cormac’s Glossary. Samain, in particular, features prominently in Old Irish literature. Many tales, including some of the echtrai genre, are set at this feast of the dead, which saw the suspension of barriers between earth and otherworld, permitting reciprocal access. It was the appropriate time for the demise of heroes, and a suitable backdrop for "threefold death" tales. Stories of these festivals and of deity-figures associated with them were carried into later tradition, and customs relating to them—including the lighting of bonfires— long survived in modern folk practice.

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